Next up in the recent slew of youth pictures is The Way, Way Back — Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s coming-of-age, summer-vacation comedy. The movie certainly emanates a pleasantly breezy atmosphere, but with satirical firebombs The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers fresh in the memory, it feels as tepid as a community swimming pool. It’s content to follow John Hughes’ smarmy-melodramatic instruction manual while its genre cousins are giving the term “rebel without a cause” new diabolical definitions.
Duncan (Liam James) is a geeky and insecure fourteen-year-old, who's forced to spend the summer at a beach house with his mom and her vitriolic boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Duncan already feels like a cipher, and Trent exacerbates his self-doubt with barrages of sardonic mockery. Carell makes for a predictably delicious scoundrel, but his character is more walking douche-bag than human being. Toni Collette fares better as Duncan’s conflicted mother who struggles to decide where her loyalties should lie.
Soon after arriving at the shore, Duncan meets the cutie next door, Suzanna (Anna-Sophia Robb). Like Duncan, she comes from a broken home and finds in her goofy new neighbor a kindred spirit. The screenplay eventually works in a contrived romantic element that it neglects to fully explore. Furthermore, even though Robb makes a fetching coed, I seriously doubt a beautiful upperclassman would be interested in an awkward freshman like Duncan.
Besides, The Way, Way Back is less summer romance than summer bromance. Duncan stumbles upon a local water park and befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell) — its smooth-talking owner. A profoundly underrated actor, Rockwell plays Owen as a good-hearted wisecracker, and his relationship with Duncan works beautifully because he is the exact opposite of Trent. Due to his compassion and immaturity, Owen can be both supportive father figure and mischievous peer.
Ultimately, The Way, Way Back offers few surprises. As one might expect, Duncan departs in August far more comfortable in his own skin. Yet with an impressive ensemble — including scene-stealers Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, and Jim Rash — the film makes a resoundingly successful crowd-pleaser. Even if it’s hardly brainy enough to compare to contemporaneous youth pictures, this charming getaway at least fills its empty head with warm summer air.